Thursday, October 21, 2010

On Ideal Readers

I've been thinking lately about reading, and what makes me return to some books again and again, while others languish, unfinished or unstarted, on my bookshelves. There are four authors I repeatedly turn to in times of crisis or boredom or need: Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, Ursula LeGuin, and Annie Dillard. I didn't know this about myself until I started giving away copies of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Tent in hopes that someone else would share what I felt when reading the words inside. Eventually I realized that even the people who enjoyed my recommendations -- and that was certainly not everyone I hassled to read what I was reading -- didn't effusively express the same connection to the books that I did. 

Over the years, Borges has started to creep into the ranks (strangely the only man in my pantheon on writers, despite the fact that most of the books I read are written by men), but the sensation of being known by an author is few and far between. I sometimes experience it with theorists -- C. Wright Mills, Richard Rorty, and Foucault come to mind, although only Rorty regularly makes it into my work -- but it remains a sensation tied to words, and not to ideas. I find myself picking up books by writers who express similar feelings about my beloved quintet; two weeks ago I bought Roberto Bolano's 2666 on the basis that he once said he could live under a kitchen table, reading Borges. 

It turns out there's a term for this sensation: that of being the ideal reader. In her introduction to The Best American Non-Required Reading 2003, Zadie Smith wrote about the experience of discovering yourself as an ideal reader:
The ideal reader cannot sleep when holding the writer he was meant to be with.
A cult book, of course, is one that induces the feeling of "being chosen as ideal" in every one of its readers. This is a rare, mysterious quality. The difference between, for example, a fine book like Philip Roth's The Human Stain and a cult book like J.D. Salinger's Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is that no one is in any doubt that Roth's book was written for the general reader, whereas a Salinger reader must fight the irrational sensation that the book was written for her alone. It happens more often in music: Prince fans thought Prince their own private mirage; all of the boys who liked Morissey thought he sang for each of them...It is all of it delusional, probably, like simultaneous orgasm, but to think of oneself as the perfect receptacle for an artwork is one of the few wholly benign human vanities.
Ideal reading is aspirational, like dating. It happens that I am E.M. Forster's ideal reader, but I would much prefer to be Gustave Flaubert's or William Gaddis's or Franz Kafka's or Borges's. But early on Forster and I saw how we suited, how we fit, how we felt comfortable (too much so?) in each others company. I am Forster's ideal reader because, I think, nothing that he left on the page escapes me. Rightly or wrongly, I feel I get all his jokes and appreciate his nuances, that I am as hurt by his flaws as I am by my own, and as please when he is great as I would be if I did something great...You might know three or four writers like this in your life, and likely as not, you will meet them when you are very young. Understand: They are not the writers that you most respect, most envy, or even most enjoy. They are the ones you know.
This is not the ideal reader of the writer, as presented in Stephen King's excellent On Writing. The writer may indeed have an ideal reader in mind while she works -- this person is not the same as the reader who feels themselves to be ideal. Goethe, in a letter Johann Rochlitz, wrote that there are three kinds of readers: one who enjoys without judging, one who judges without enjoying, and a third who judges while enjoying and enjoys while judging. It is the final class of reader -- though the smallest class -- "who reproduces a work of art anew". This is the reader who holds, for the books that matter most to them, the promise of resurrection. They are the cumulative reader: each re-reading, each new piece of writing by the author, adds new layers of memory to the narrative.

From Nick Hornby's Songbook:
But sometimes, very occasionally, songs and books and films and pictures express who you are, perfectly. And they don't do this with words or images, necessarily; the connection is a lot less direct and more complicated than that...It's a process somewhat like falling in love. You don't necessarily choose the best person, or the wisest or the most beautiful; there's something else going on. There was a part of me that would rather have fallen for Updike, or Kerouac, or DeLillo -- for someone masculine, at least, maybe somebody a little more opaque, and certainly someone who uses more swear words -- and though I have admired those writers, at various stages in my life, admiration is a very different thing from the kind of transference I'm talking about. I'm talking about understanding -- or at least feeling like I understand -- every artistic decision, every impulse, the soul of both the work and its creator.  
Who are you the ideal reader for?

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